The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.


Halt Your Enthusiasm!

I am here in Germany visiting my gf, and I happen to be here when the city of Mainz is celebrating their annual Johannisnacht festival. Last night was the final night, and it was celebrated in style with a 15-minute firework display, which my gf and I watched from Theodor-Heuss Bridge that links Wiesbaden and Mainz.

Johannisnacht 1On the first night of the festival, Friday night, my gf and I walked to the city center where the festivities were held and ate a bit of food and had a beer or two. That was the night I learned my first lesson in Germany enthusiasm: Wait until the song, event, phenomenon, is completely finished before celebrating. I am quiet serious. That Friday night we enjoyed a few songs from an all too impressive Black Sabbath cover band playing at one end of the festivities. Being a Sabbath fan from my teenage years, I sang along and cheered whenever I was struck with excitement. And for this, I received some good ol’ fashion German upbraiding: the stare! First, yes, I was the only one clapping… of which my gf informed me I was, um, premature in my celebration (soooo American, she says). And then I got a stare. The stare from an older German gentleman whose fun I was apparently ruining. Lesson learned.

Three night later and I am about to test my new found knowledge at the final celebratory night. It was tough. It was tough for this red-blooded “didn’t-know-how-American-he-was-until-fireworks-came-out” guy NOT to “oooh,” “aaah,” and cheer every time some pretty colors burst over the Rhine. So, I was quiet. I stood and listened to some sparsely hasty, yet hushed, German excitement over the larger fireworks. But for the most part, the collection of citizens in the photos below didn’t make as sound during the whole fiery procession.

Only one dared to make a sound. As an acute cluster of fireworks dissipated, one promisingly remarkable firework shot forth into the sky. As the dormant firework traveled upwards, I heard from a man on my right as the rocket shot high, a barely audible remark; a lovely admission of the pretense of excitement echoed in the most German way possible. A small, yet significant, word was uttered in an almost official tone: “Jawohl…”.

Fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Fireworks 3Fireworks 4

Jawohl. You’re damn right, “Jawohl”.

Reading is Fun(Duh)Mental: natürlich!

I’m doing my darnedest not to make this a blog about being a parent, but sometimes, you gotta think out loud…

She doesn’t like kindergarten. At six years old, I don’t blame her. I did not like school until I was 25. (And now I teach at one! Ha!) It turns out that her reading skills are below average—again, it’s not necessarily easy to handle when you have a collected eight bookshelves in your home and a M.A. in Literature. And her friends are reading already, so they are moving ahead of her and receive special access to the “purple” folder—a folder that apparently contains special words and privileges for the more advanced readers. So, tonight we slowly read Skip Along—a book my mom learned to read with when she was young. It’s good—you know, “Go, Alice, go” type of stuff. I like it. And then before bed, and the nightly reading, I asked her to grab a book of my shelf and bring it to me.

Blenheim PalaceDiary: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk. Not a good start, but she grabbed it hesitantly. In other words, while glancing at me for approval/permission. She brought it over and we skimmed through the many pages. She put it back on the shelf—in it’s alphabetic spot, as I requested. Then she grabbed Haunted, by the same author. “Sheesh,” I thought, “pick Orwell or something.” Nope. Next she grabbed Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson. Possibly cause it’s hardcover and ginormous. Possibly due to her disdain for Richard Nixon. I don’t know. Then, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. “One of my favorites,” I remarked. She is amazed when I told her I read the whole thing. Each time I flipped through the pages, making sure to note to her the 380, 400, or 282 page length of each book. Then she grabbed part four of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky—hefty reading. We noted the 600 pages, and I read to her about Fyodor’s trip to Baden-Baden with his then wife.

I closed the book and she remarked, “That must be like 500 words!” I smiled and replied, “Well, there about 500 words on these two pages. And there are 600 pages.” She looked at me as though an abacus made exclusively of super-bouncy balls was bouncing back and forth, back and forth in her head. I told her that each author is explaining an idea. That they needed to communicate something to everyone and anyone that they could. And because we can all read, we can understand that idea. Then I told her that she will learn to read. All of us did. I did. Mommy did. Even Grandma Jo did. And she will too, someday. Then I told her she may even write a book this big—still holding Franks’ 600-page biography. Her eyes widened and she remarked, “Maybe it will be like 100 pages! Then the book would be this big!” She motioned with her arms outstretched as far as she could.

German American InstituteI know everything will be fine. At least it is an empathetic struggle. You see, I’m learning (re-learning) German right now. And it’s often a struggle. Whenever my daughter trips on a word while reading Skip Along, I think of that word’s German equivalent. Most of the time I cannot recall it. Sometimes, I want to say out loud, “Gehen, Alice, gehen!” And I know that my problem with learning German is practice. Just like her issue with reading. It shouldn’t be thought of as a struggle, or a standard measurement to which she/I needs to be assessed, or some cool folder that makes us feel worse about our reading. It’s practice. Practice, along with the basic importance of why we read: Verbindung.

On The Geneaology of Morals/Ecce Homo, by Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce HomoOn the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I find it difficult to write a review of a philosophical work; difficult because it is initially put upon the reviewer to agree or disagree with an idea, but one must first summarize–and by doing that, one has already levied judgment.” -me

I wrote that passage on the back page of my copy of this text. The page number I referenced before writing this thought is page 326, which contains the quote from Ecce Homo (1900): “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy: you will guess why I publish this book before; it shall prevent people from doing mischief with me” (emphasis original). Walter Kaufmann, the translator, notes that Ecce Homo was not published until 1908, eight years after Friedrich Nietzsche’s death; eight years after Peter Gast proclaimed at the funeral of his friend: “Holy be thy name to all coming generations” (326). I find this first quote significant for many reasons, and it is the one I will deal with during the entirety of this review.

First, it is important to note what I am reading. This text is one of Nietzsche’s final works. In fact, as the note states, it was published posthumously–not the classical way of familiarizing oneself with a great philosopher, of this I am aware. My interest with Nietzsche began long ago through references by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jasbir Puar, but the first actual text of his that I encountered was: A Nietzsche Reader. This text is organized thematically, and is a good primer for Nietzsche’s writing. That being noted, I began this text with the later Ecce Homo, not the earlier On The Genealogy of Morals. The former text contains Nietzsche’s personal account of his own writing; from The Birth of Tragedy (1872) to The Case of Wagner (1888), and with everything else in between. But I was not reading it for that textual investigation; I was reading it because of the “Why I Am” essays.

You may have heard of them (“Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” etc.), or maybe you passed them in the bookstore and thought “What a pompous ass this Nietzsche fellow is!” I guess so. But I read them because I thought myself clever as well. Actually, I had made this same statement to two people on New Year’s Day 2013; namely, “I am so wise,” spoken with earnest pride. Then the seed was planted, and I went to the local used bookstore the next day to purchase this text after having seen it there over one month prior.

English: Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think one ought to approach Nietzsche in this manner: with a positive interest and happy conjectures, seeking gainful contemplation. Without that, one may happen upon an unhappy and lonely man writing manifestos for the Third Reich; but if that is the case, then one has read foolishly and done grave mischief to Nietzsche. This is quite specific mischief, and it is settled throughout Ecce Homo. If anything, one should take away from this text Nietzsche’s disgust for the Germans, his absolute abhorrence of nationalism, and his utmost desire to be understood. I shall lift another quotation circa 1900: “let the Germans commit one more immortal blunder in relation to me that will stand in all eternity” (Ecce Homo 324). Wie Stören…

But I digress.

For me, reading Nietzsche isn’t about a grand idea or accumulating argumentative munitions against religion or morality, but about approaching art and life with a new and refreshing understanding. I cannot imagine attempting to decipher exactly what point or lesson or utilitarian application the reader was supposed to infer from Nietzsche’s master/slave morality detailed in On The Genealogy of Morals, but I can apply his thesis on ressentiment to the integration of the tragic figure into popular culture, starting with Arthur Miller’s essay on his own Death of a Salesman (1949), entitled “Tragedy and The Common Man” (written the same year). [Essay forthcoming]. It seems to me that Nietzsche is a referential adviser; not a person to whom one should read, digest and discard; nor an author whom one should carry in one’s back pocket; but, rather, an author one should consider from time to time, if only to contemplate our world from a different angle.

Many will advise not to approach Nietzsche lightly, but to consider him gravely and with steadfast measure. I disagree entirely. Approach Nietzsche when you are up, not down; when you have found happiness, not when you seek it; when you are ready to say YES to life, not when you feel it at its heaviest burden. Nietzsche is someone to be taken lightly; without weightlessness one cannot ascend to, and descend from, the great heights he offers; one cannot comprehend his Zarathustra; and one cannot read him free of mischief. So, with this in mind, you are sure to find answers in the divine human that is yourself, before you find them in the Nietzsche whom so many so desperately and despondently seek.

My read shelf:
Shawn's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

Cultural Mythology at the German Laundromat

“At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat.”
-English drying instructions posted in a German laundromat

First off, the laundromat down the street from the apartment I am staying at with my gf in Mainz, Germany until Oct. 17th is pristine. I’m from the American suburbs. I haven’t the need to go to laundromats. But in my mind there lurks a very specific image of what a laundromat must be like: dirty, smelly, unkempt, with pushy people lounging around smoking cigarettes or blabbing away on their cellphones. Not in Deutschland.

Before you start to think this is some First World rant by some privileged, white, suburban male who decided to use the dryer at a laundromat, let me draw your attention to the purpose of this post: the German-English translation. It is a beautiful thing that causes riotous laughter on my part, which often shocks the average German standing next to me.

Example: To the immediate left is a photo of the Drying instructions in my local German laundromat. On the wall to its left is the Washing instructions, which I will get to in a bit. Don’t get me wrong, these instructions are very helpful; but they are often hilarious.

I’ve blown up the photo and made a vignette so you can better see the area to which I am referring. The last red bullet point above the “Safety advices” reads: “At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat. You can obey crinkles, if you will get out laundry at once and fold it directly. Oftenly you can spare ironing of this laundry.” Huh? 😀 Even through the translation, the point is clear, and yet I can’t help hearing a very loud German man in mauve green lederhosen yelling at me “You must obey crinkles!” whenever I read this passage.

The washing instructions carried a similar translation, but in its silliness revealed a difference between the cultural responsibilities of American and German citizens. I’ll let the picture explain.

On the immediate left is the vignetted  image of the Washing instructions, highlighting the area of interest. The fourth blue bullet point above “General washing advices” reads: “Please do not use more detergent than issued. The washing machine will foam too much, which will bring out a bad washing output and of course a worse washing effort.” Now that we are past the whole ‘this is a crazy-bad-funny translation thing,’ let’s look at these two words: “of course”. I’ll ask this question: upon first read, what do you think of those words? My gf and I were engrossed in conversation about these words all the while our clothes were drying. We agreed that the words “of course” signify a level of personal responsibility that is mitigated by overall good of the German state.

The “huh” you say!?! At first, I thought “of course” was an inherent condescending insult to a person’s intelligence. I then realized I’m American, and I think I already know everything. I relaxed and considered that the “of course” was a sweet pat on the head by the German state saying, “Of course you know this my child, but we want to make it perfectly clear for your own good and the good of Germany.” The American label, if it was still legible from cigarette burns, graffiti, and the bored peelings of the teenage mind, would have clearly stopped at the action and its consequence. “Don’t do this, or this will happen!” Beyond that simple message, it is up to you.

Gratuitous Patriotic Cookie Image

In America, we don’t really care if your overloading the machine results in a “bad washing output” or a “worse washing effort,” as the translation relates. Your clothes, once they go in the machine, are your problem. It seems here in Deutschland the simple fact that possible mistakes are considered and, hmmm, not exactly, prohibited, but simply stymied from occurring is a metaphor for what distinguishes American culture from German culture. The German state does not want its citizens to fail, while America could care less. One could even argue that American mythology is based solely on the overcoming of odds by a single individual against a larger, more powerful entity. Falling from grace and getting back up is America’s mythology, while ensuring that a citizen will not fall is Germany’s mythology.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

And remember to “obey your crinkles! Jawohl!”

Of Mineral Water and Cultural Adaption

“Alright, I’m going for a run. I’ll be back soon.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Hmm… probably 45 minutes or so. Why…?”
“I would just like to know whether I should make reservations tonight for only one.”

I have a confession. No, it has nothing to do with the neglecting of this blog, and the blogs I follow, for the past 12 days–although that may come up.

My confession is simple: I like bubbly, mineral water.

There. I wrote it. It is on the great and powerful Internet now; possibly forever. First, I have decided that this inkling toward the bubbly makes me European (specifically German, since I am now in Germany until Oct. 17th, and technically ethnically nearly 80% German). And second, it is a testament to my level of comfort here in Mainz, Deutschland.

A bevy of beautiful, beautiful bubbles!

Water became a topic of conversation between my gf & I, when we decided that Americans generally do not drink bubbly, mineral water (or, with gas as it is sometimes called). Personally, I drink my water from the tap, or from a Brita filter. It has fluoride. It has minerals. It has stuff I should be consuming. But I was told not to do that here in Mainz, Germany. So, we, and everyone it seems, drinks large 1.5 liter bottles of H2O, and then returns them for 0.25€ each at their local grocery store. Bubbly water, like San Pellegrino in the States, is, as I referred to it, “hoity toity,” and it requires a certain comfort level for the middle-class American palate.

In 2003-04, when I was living in Rome, Italy, I tried the whole “with gas” thing. It didn’t take. Again, last time I was in Germany, February 2012, I didn’t like the bubbles or the minerals. But now something just snapped. We were at lunch two days ago eating Vietnamese food (Ha Noi, definitely eat here!), when the waiter brought bubbly water with a lemon slice and it matched the yellow curry perfectly. I haven’t looked back ever since. In fact, I bought a 6-pack of still (for the gf) and a 6-pack of medium bubbly (for me) last night. I’m a changed man.

For your amusement: some silly questions I asked my gf about the bubbly water for which I received perfectly serious answers:
—”So, is it more expensive?”
—”Do the bubbles come first, then they take them out? or do they add bubbles?”
—”There are various degrees of bubbles?!?”
—”Do ALL Germans drink the bubbly water?”

The second part of this post refers to the introduction quote. I went for a jog yesterday. In the States I jog three times a week, three 5k’s, depending on the weather. I have never jogged here. It was uplifting. It was enlightening. It was peaceful. It was glorious. It was empowering. And, I successfully found my way back to our apartment. I jogged along the Rhine with the old couples slowly shuffling along together hand-in-hand. I jogged along the promenade with the young mothers and fathers calmly pushing strollers over cobblestones. And I returned home to the kitchen emanating a wondrous aroma of a boiling basil and tomato sauce.

You see, when I visit my gf here in Mainz, we are never outside of earshot of one another the entire time of my visit. We work peacefully and respectfully around one another, we can be silent for hours, we sometimes talk over a meal for four hours straight, we read together, we watch films together, or go on walks. Me going off on my own is a big deal. It is part of my comfort here in Germany. It is part of me finding my own way. It is part of me coming back to her; of absence being the beautiful knowledge of a return.

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to hear your own silly cultural adaption stories, or your opinion on bubbly water!